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Islamic State mass graves reveal thousands of dead bodies and extent of horror

As IS territory shrinks the grim process of recovering the dead can begin.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

MASS GRAVES CONTAINING between 5,200 to more than 15,000 people killed by the so-called Islamic State have been discovered in Iraq and Syria.

The 72 mass graves have been mapped by The Associated Press who says that the number of bodies is difficult to estimate.

The sites are believed to be just a fraction of the graves that Islamic State extremists have scattered across Iraq and Syria. More of the graves are expected to be discovered as he Islamic State group’s territory shrinks.

In Syria, AP has obtained locations for 17 mass graves, including one with the bodies of hundreds of members of a single tribe all but exterminated when IS extremists took over their region.

For at least 16 of the Iraqi graves, most in territory too dangerous to excavate, officials do not even guess the number of dead. In others, the estimates are based on memories of traumatised survivors, Islamic State propaganda and what can be gleaned from a cursory look at the earth.

Still, even the known victims buried are staggering from 5,200 to more than 15,000.

Sinjar mountain is dotted with mass graves, some in territory clawed back from IS after the group’s onslaught against the Yazidi minority in August 2014, thers in the deadly no man’s land that has yet to be secured.

Islamic State Mass Graves Sgt. Ahmed Abdelaziz of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces shows an Islamic State video of his brother's death. Source: Maya Alleruzzo

The bodies of Talal Murat’s father, uncles and cousins lie beneath the rubble of the family farm, awaiting a time when it is safe for surviving relatives to return to the place where the men were gunned down.

On Sinjar’s other flank, Rasho Qassim drives daily past the graves holding the bodies of his two sons.

The road is in territory long since seized back, but the five sites are untouched, roped off and awaiting the money or the political will for excavation, as the evidence they contain is scoured away by the wind and baked by the sun.

“We want to take them out of here. There are only bones left. But they said ‘No, they have to stay there, a committee will come and exhume them later,’” said Qassim, standing at the edge of the flimsy fence surrounding one site, where his two sons are buried.

It has been two years but nobody has come.

IS made no attempt to hide its atrocities. In fact it boasted of them. But proving what United Nations officials and others have described as an ongoing genocide — and prosecuting those behind it — will be complicated as the graves deteriorate.

“We see clear evidence of the intent to destroy the Yazidi people,” said Naomi Kikoler, who recently visited the region for the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

There’s been virtually no effort to systematically document the crimes perpetrated, to preserve the evidence, and to ensure that mass graves are identified and protected.

Islamic State Mass Graves Sirwan Jalal, Director of Mass Graves for the Kurdish Regional Government. Source: Maya Alleruzzo

Then there are the graves still out of reach. The Islamic State group’s atrocities extend well outside the Yazidi region in northern Iraq.

Satellites offer the clearest look at massacres such as the one at Badoush Prison in June 2014 that left 600 male inmates dead. A patch of scraped earth and tire tracks show the likely killing site, according to exclusive photos obtained by the imagery intelligence firm AllSource Analysis.

Of the 72 mass graves documented by AP, the smallest contains three bodies the largest is believed to hold thousands, but no one knows for sure.

Read: At least 60 have been killed in a suicide bomb in Yemen >

Read: Islamic State releases video of children carrying out prisoner executions >

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Associated Press

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